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How to secure support for your ERG’s initiatives

August 6, 2023
Diversity & Inclusion

Employee resource groups, more commonly known as staff networks in the UK, have served as important vehicles for promoting inclusion and advocating for traditionally underestimated segments of workers with shared identities and interests. Unfortunately, many ERGs aren’t given the resources, budget, and attention they need to fulfill that promise. Here are some concerns I’ve seen in my work coaching individuals and delivering talks to ERGs:

  • How can I secure more budget allocation to support my faith-based ERG?
  • Why is my organization not running charity campaigns for floods in Pakistan or earthquakes in Turkey and Syria?
  • My organization has an active women’s network but lacks focus on intersectionality. How do I get them to prioritize this?

Given cost cutting, lack of cultural awareness, and increasing pressure to slash DEI budgets, the challenges many identity groups or social causes face can slip through the cracks. In such challenging circumstances, how can ERG members galvanize and get the attention their networks need to influence and have impact? Here are a few strategies based on how I’ve supported people with similar challenges.

Know Your Why
First, get clarity on what exactly you want to achieve and what the added support would mean for you and your fellow ERG members. For example, Nadia* sought my advice on how to request a dedicated Wudu area for Muslim colleagues, while Hamza wanted to host an annual Iftar party during Ramadan. Despite the existence of faith networks at their companies, both faced obstacles due to their organizations’ reluctance to make “special religious arrangements.” Meanwhile, Akua, who was member of a women’s network at her company, wanted to organize a conference for women of color that would focus solely on the challenges faced by women from Black, Asian, and multiethnic backgrounds. However, she was told that the organization would only fund the women’s network initiatives that championed “all women.”

As disappointing as this was and despite the resistance from their respective organizations, I encouraged all three to take time to reflect on why these initiatives were essential to them. My goal was to help them solidify their ask and improve their chances of achieving their outcomes.

To get others on board with your ideas, start affirming your outcomes based on what you want to happen, not what you want to avoid. Additionally, take the time to consider the resources required, potential obstacles, and how your desired outcome will impact the system as a whole. By staying focused on your purpose, you can increase your sense of ownership and strengthen your conviction when presenting your idea to others. Here are some of the questions I asked Nadia, Hamza, and Akua to answer:

  • Why do you want this? What purpose does it serve and value does it provide?
  • What, where, when, and with whom will you achieve this outcome?
  • What are the internal and external resources required to realize this outcome?
  • What will you gain or lose by achieving this outcome?
  • What is your action plan?
  • What changes would your desired outcome bring about in the larger system, and what will happen if you don’t get to that outcome?
  • How will you monitor progress or overcome any challenges?
  • How will you measure the impact of this outcome?

Once these questions have been answered, it’s time to move on to preparing the business case. It may be helpful to keep revisiting the above as priorities evolve.

Prepare Your Business Case
Now that you’ve identified your why, it’s time to get ready to make your case to leadership.

Most organizations operate on a “what’s in it for me?” basis. Cherron Inko Tariah MBE, author of The Incredible Power of Staff Networks, encourages asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are you aware of what’s happening in the organization?
  • Do you know the workplace culture and the issues facing the business? What’s at the top of your CEO’s inbox?
  • What was discussed at the last board meeting?
  • What are the HR leader’s priorities?

It’s important to ensure that any new initiative aligns with the company’s overall goals and strategies. This is exactly what Nadia did when she presented her case for a Wudu sink. She was able to clearly show how this provision would support the company’s goal of becoming one of the top inclusive employers within three years. By linking her proposal to that larger goal, she was able to gain the support needed to move forward and make it a reality.

Measuring and regularly tracking progress can significantly impact how an ERG and its activities are seen and valued. To make a compelling business case, ERG leaders must gauge their work’s effectiveness and calculate the return on investment for their efforts. Metrics such as membership numbers and participation, satisfaction, and retention rates are excellent tools to leverage. To help you substantiate the need for and interest in your initiative, use pulse surveys to capture sentiment and solicit feedback from your members. Equally important is making adjustments as necessary to ensure that your ERG is meeting its goals and adding value to your organization.

Finally, you can also help build your case by evaluating the global and intercultural benefits of your ERG’s activity. Help leaders consider a macro perspective: How will the initiative affect individuals, work groups, customers, and the global organization? For example, Salman, a member of the Black Asian multiethnic network at his company’s London office, wanted to initiate a campaign to collect funds for victims of floods in Pakistan during South Asian Heritage Month last year. However, he received little support from colleagues and managers, as they had recently donated to refugees of the war in Ukraine. Additionally, people tend to support those they can relate to or champion causes that get more international attention.

Salman reached out to his colleagues in the company’s South Asia location and used their help and experience to garner interest at the London office through storytelling. After learning how the floods had affected families of employees working in the Pakistan region, the London office was more inclined to take action.

It’s also valuable to collect information and share examples of how best-in-class companies (including competitors) are addressing your cause and encouraging others to join the alliance. To help get support at his company, Hamza gathered information on similar organizations that had successfully led Ramadan campaigns at their respective organizations.

At this stage, it’s understandable that you’re keen to press forward, but making your case tactfully is crucial; engaging in the conversation with humility while avoiding comparisons and “whataboutism” is more likely to yield a successful result. Attempts to minimize other groups or initiate a competing narrative when fighting for your right to be heard or seen will backfire and make you lose support from different identity groups. When we draw comparisons, we neither heal nor drive positive change. It shouldn’t be a case of “this or that” but rather “this and that.”

Consider starting your conversation with leadership like this: “I appreciate the organization’s focus on inclusion. I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of XYZ network and can see the positive impact it has created. Encouraged by the influence, I propose an initiative for XYX.” Then you can elaborate on why what you’re asking for is essential, including the data you’ve gathered.

Gather Support
The company will only consider your case if there’s sufficient interest, so once your “why” is clear and you’ve prepared a business case, it’s time to rally support. When I asked Nadia if there were other employees she could rely on, she affirmed there were quite a few. She then created an internal Google form survey and gathered responses from colleagues who shared the benefits of a separate a Wudu sink for their Muslim and non-Muslim colleagues.

Next, it was necessary to get senior leaders involved. McKinsey research found that ERG leaders who have strong ties to executives are better able to obtain resources and funding than those with weak ties. Speaking to allies and sponsors you can count on for support is vital. Hamza did exactly this and was able to bring many on board for his Iftar celebration — in fact, some were even eager to participate in a Ramadan Challenge before partaking in the Iftar celebration. Taking advantage of solid connections and visible supporters higher up within the ranks can be a significant bolster for the initiative to be taken seriously.

Even if you don’t have sufficient numbers from your identity group to advocate for your initiative, you can look to other ERGs to support you. Here’s one possible way to approach the conversation with ERG leaders:

I loved being part of your network’s initiative; my participation has helped me recognize why your network is important and why it’s essential to have our needs seen and acknowledged. Inspired by you, I’ve asked management to allocate resources to XYZ. Can I count on the support of your network as I prepare to approach them?

The advantage of this is twofold: Not only will you have their backing, but because it’s not uncommon for ERGs to combine resources and jointly advocate for social impact initiatives, they may even organize or run programs for you if you’re unsuccessful securing what you need. But remember that such mutually beneficial associations rely on reciprocity — if you expect them to help, you must also be a visible ally for them.

Be Specific and Prepare to Pivot
In the earlier example, when Salman wanted to organize a charity drive for flood victims in Pakistan, he took charge of the initiative. He asked for specific things he needed: using the office’s hall to hold a bake sale, mentioning the campaign in the company newsletter and a company-wide email, and using the office kitchen to store goods.

Be prepared to pivot when you don’t get what you ask for. Prepare a sliding scale of asks and try to secure minimum commitment to start the conversation. If the company doesn’t grant the budget for an event, perhaps ask them to at least send a company-wide email showing support and solidarity. Also, see if you can tie in with other networks and share resources or budgets. Remember, a “no” doesn’t mean a “no” forever — revisit the ask in a few weeks or months as circumstances change.

. . .
ERGs are essential in fostering belonging and advancing potential, and they need support to be able to continue to do that. Organizations need to include all identity groups and champion all social causes equally, but it’s naïve to expect that to happen without a substantial push. Systemic inequities and organizational bias permeate most organizations, and leaders will remain complacent if they aren’t actively challenged. Navigating a system where some voices are often trivialized or go unheard altogether requires ERG leaders and members to be resourceful and project their asks more strategically. Waiting for organizations to take that initiative may translate into a very long wait — better to push and be heard than not be heard at all.

by Hira Ali

Source: hbr.org

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